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Serving Colombian flavor

Entrepreneur finds success with Hyde Park clientele

Martin Desmarais
Serving Colombian flavor
The takeout business at Salamander’s Café in Hyde Park has been going strong, especially for breakfast, since it opened in January. (Photo: Photo: Martin Desmarais)

Hyde Park business bigwigs wanted a breakfast café in the neighborhood and Maria “Mercedes” Pica was more than happy to oblige with her Salamander’s Café, which opened in late January of this year on River St. But four months into her business she is already looking to build on the strong breakfast rush by expanding to offer Colombian food as well.

Pica, a native of Bogotá, Colombia, said expanding the menu is just a matter of meeting demand. While the need for a breakfast café in Hyde Park has proven true and Salamander’s is packed every morning serving up coffee and breakfast sandwiches, Pica has fielded a constant stream of questions about serving Colombian food. Once people find out where she is from it always come up. The repeated exchange made her take a look at the ethnic diversity of Hyde Park and she noticed the prominence of a Latino community, as well as a big Colombian community in nearby Roslindale.

She also asked some of the area’s Colombian residents about where they go to get authentic food from their native land and turns out they all travel to East Boston as the closest option. Any savvy entrepreneur would see that as an opportunity — Pica certainly did.

“I just saw the market needs that too. Colombian food is the best that I can do — it is my food. That is why I decided to do it,” Pica said.

Currently, Salamander’s is only open for breakfast and lunch through the late afternoon, but Pica hopes the expansion into Colombian food will lead to serving dinner as well.

Author: Photo: Martin DesmaraisMaria “Mercedes” Pica, owner of Salamander’s Café in Hyde Park, serves a customer. The café, which opened four months ago, already has a business breakfast crowd and recently expanded its menu.

Testing the waters

For the past month, Salamander’s has experimented with Colombian food specials on the weekends to test the waters. The response has been great.

“I think that it is going to work really good,” said Pica. Long-term she envisions the Colombian connection providing her an opportunity to tie in with the culture with night events including music or similar themed Sunday brunches.

Salamander’s new menu with the Colombian additions launched this week.

The breakfast crowd can still get the standard breakfast fare, but Colombian flavor encroaches with dishes that include corn tortillas, plantains and cheese bread.

The lunch menu adds the type of dishes that will eventually spill over into dinner service down the road.

A highlight is Bandeja Paisa, a take on one of the most popular Colombian dishes that features grilled steak, pork strips, a fried egg, beans, rice, sweet plantains and corn tortilla.

In addition one of Pica’s goals in adding Colombian fare to the menu was to encompass food styles from all the different regions in the country. As such the menu has Changua Bogotana, from Bogotá, Tamal Tolimense from Tolima and Pandebono Valluno con Huevos from Cali.

Standard lunch fare such as sandwiches, wraps and salads are also available.

Career pivot

From the start, Salamander’s has offered a catering business, especially targeting local businesses. The hope is that the Colombian menu will also grow the catering business for cultural events.

The café has a permit for 22 seats, which Pica is looking to expand to about 30. She is also working on the challenging process of getting a liquor license, something she believes will be crucial to success offering dinner.

Currently, Pica has a staff of four with a main chef to head up the kitchen work.

Pica oversees the business and draws on her background in marketing to spread the word about Salamander’s.

She came to the United States 10 years ago to work in marketing at State Street Global Advisors. In 2012, she was laid off from the financial company and, while trying to find other work, considered opening an office for her own marketing consulting business. One of the office buildings she checked out for this in East Boston was looking to add a coffee shop to serve building tenants. Though she had no background in the coffee business the thought sparked the entrepreneur in her and she did some research on it. Ultimately, she decided she could open the coffee shop.

In 2013, she did just that and ran the business — also called Salamander’s Café — for a little less than a year.

High hopes

Though things went well, the café was in a small space, and Pica’s vision for the future was constrained by the location. She worked with the City of Boston’s Office of Business Development to find a bigger and better location in an area that needed her business. This led her to Hyde Park.

She couldn’t be more thrilled about how things have turned out and has high hopes for her business venture.

“I am very happy because people are very supportive here in the area. I have been selling from the very first day,” said Pica.

And even though she spent almost three decades working in corporate marketing, she says she has no plans to return to that sector and has found new life in the restaurant business with Salamander’s.

“I was tired of being an employee. I wanted to do something for myself and be my own boss,” she said. “This is my baby. I am here the whole time. You will find me here at nights and you will find me here in the morning too — you will find me here every day. This is like my house.”